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What is Espionage?

Updated on January 11, 2010
Photograph by Jasmaine Mathews
Photograph by Jasmaine Mathews

Espionage is the secret gathering of information by undercover agents. The agents spy on a country, organization, or person and transmit their observations to their employer. Governments usually hire spies to secure military, technical, industrial, and political data about an actual or potential enemy. To prevent other countries from practicing espionage against it, a country uses its police and security agencies for counterespionage. These agencies also protect the government from subversive or revolutionary elements among its own citizens, and in dictatorships they may try to prevent all political opposition.

In ancient times, spies were sometimes sent ahead of an army to scout the strength of the enemy and the position of his defenses. The Old Testament tells of Moses sending 12 spies to report on the land of Canaan (Numbers 13). During the Middle Ages in Europe, spying became quite efficient, and by the 18th century, espionage was an accepted part of government. Frederick the Great of Prussia was the first to use the "double agent," often a captured enemy spy who works for both sides and is used by his captors to send false information to his original employers.

During World War II, highly developed central agencies, such as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the United States, carried off many successful espionage operations. The OSS sent men behind enemy lines to get strategic information and to aid the resistance movements in occupied countries. General Dwight D. Eisenhower estimated that the OSS kept five German divisions out of battle on D-Day.

In addition to espionage agents, nations expect their diplomats to make reports on the situation in their assigned country. They are assisted in this by a technical, legal, and military staff. If they do not resort to illegal means such as bribery and theft, however, this practice is not considered espionage. If they are suspected of espionage, they may be expelled from the country. In 1915, for example, the United States expelled the German military attache in Washington for heading a nationwide spy ring.

Certain Allied diplomatic personnel in World War II were implicated in espionage. The arrest in 1950 of Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist who had been passing atomic secrets to the Russians, ultimately implicated the wartime Soviet vice-consul in New York City. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American members of the spy ring that the Soviet diplomat headed during the war, were executed in 1953, the first Americans sentenced to death for espionage by a civil court. The next year, Congress passed a law making peacetime espionage also punishable by death.

Today all nations have intelligence services that use espionage as a source of information. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinates espionage information from all other U.S. agencies and, in order to form a fuller picture, combines it with a study of foreign newspapers, scientific publications, and statistics. Partly on this basis, the government makes foreign and domestic policy decisions.

During the 1950's and the 1960's the role of technology in espionage increased greatly. Sophisticated electronic equipment was used on ships and planes to measure the level of enemy military power by photographing terrain and recording such information as missile guidance signals. In 1968 the Pueblo, a U.S. espionage ship, was captured by North Korea, but the U.S. Air Force's orbiting satellite, Samos, which is equipped for such surveillance, is for the time being immune from capture or destruction.

The individual agent has also benefitted from scientific advances. Transistors have brought about the miniaturization of devices for wiretapping and bugging; for example, radio transmitters not much bigger than an ant have been produced. The agent must always be aware, however, of the equally complicated equipment that can be used against him by counterespionage agents.

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